“I certainly agree that Northern Virginia has gone more Democratic,” John McCain’s campaign aide Nancy Pfotenhauer said on MSNBC in mid-October 2008. But, she continued, Virginia was going to vote Republican in the presidential election because “the rest of the state—real Virginia if you will—will be very responsive to Senator McCain’s message.” The MSNBC anchor, recognizing Pfotenhauer’s gaffe in the making, offered her a chance to walk back her words. But she stuck to her guns, explaining that “real Virginia” is “this part of the state that’s more Southern in nature.”
In some ways, it was just another cringe-inducing bump on the road as the Straight Talk Express careened toward its November 4 collision with the Obama juggernaut. John McCain would have lost the election—and the state of Virginia—even if Pfotenhauer hadn’t suggested that Northern Virginia wasn’t as authentic as the rest of the state. But her gaffe did serve a useful purpose by underscoring a big problem for the GOP: Republicans simply can’t win statewide elections in Virginia if Democrats run up the score in the heavily-populated D.C. suburbs.
While George W. Bush narrowly won Beltway-straddling Fairfax County (pop. 1 million) in 2000, Obama defeated McCain there 60 to 39 percent in 2008. Just 20 years earlier, those numbers were flipped, with the elder George Bush defeating Michael Dukakis 61 to 38 percent. Democrats have also consolidated their gains in Arlington County: Al Gore and John Kerry won it by 26 and 36 points, respectively, while Obama thoroughly trounced McCain 72 to 26 percent. On Election Day, Virginia voted 53 to 47 percent for Obama, delivering its electoral votes to a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1964. It turns out that a “fake” Virginian’s vote counts just as much as a “real” Virginian’s.
The GOP’s problems aren’t going away anytime soon. Virginia’s demographics have skewed away from the Republican base in recent years and show no signs of reversing. Michael Barone, co-author of the Almanac of American Politics, points to the “big immigrant influx into Fairfax County and domestic outflow.” Since 2000, more than 90,000 native Northern Virginians have moved out of the county, and more than 70,000 foreign immigrants—mostly Hispanics and Asians—have moved in. And as D.C. workers continue to push farther out into Northern Virginia to start families, the youth vote has become pivotal in determining the area’s politics. Republican pollster Ed Goeas points out just how big of a problem this is for the GOP. If you look at the nationwide youth vote (18- to 30-year-olds) in presidential elections, he says, Republicans “won by one percentage point in 2000, lost by 11 points in 2004, and lost by 33 points in 2008. The electorate wasn’t different. The [share of the] youth vote was only one point higher” in 2008. According to Goeas, if McCain had performed as well as Bush did in 2000, Obama would have won by only one point instead of seven.
Can Republicans turn the state red again? Several surprising local elections in Northern Virginia this year have heartened the party as it heads into the gubernatorial contest in November, but crafting a message that will persuade the Obamaphilic professionals of D.C.’s suburbs is something it’s still trying to figure out.
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“We are going to be the tip of the spear and the testing ground to see if Republicans can start moving back into the majority,” says GOP Fairfax County chairman Anthony Bedell. Bedell is a 41-year-old native Northern Virginian who took up his post following the 2008 election, and he is determined to get the GOP back in the game. “One of my philosophies is to play in every area of the county,” he says. “You go in and you decrease the Democrats’ winning margins and you increase the Republicans’ [share], and the next thing you know a Republican is winning countywide in Fairfax.” Already, the party has fielded candidates for 15 of the county’s 17 delegate races and expects to run a full slate—a marked improvement upon 2007 when Republicans ran in only 5 of those districts.
An early surprise was the close finish of Republican Joe Murray in a special election last January in traditionally blue Alexandria. Murray, a third-year law student at Catholic University and staffer for New Jersey congressman Joe Wilson, heard about the House of Delegates race from a Washington Post article. The next day, he arrived at the primary Blackberry in hand and convinced just enough people to give him a 20-to-16 vote win. He spent his winter break campaigning, going door to door every day, and lost the general election by only 16 votes out of 2,600 cast.
Simply showing up to play is the first step to regaining a foothold in the region, but many Republicans believe they need to make more dramatic moves—revamping the party’s image, if not its ideology—to win. As the Virginia GOP attempts to reach out to suburban voters, it’s backing politicians with more moderate appeal—much like Republican John Cook, who, last February, defied political trends and narrowly won a seat on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors—a district held by Democrats for over 20 years.
Cook, 45, a New York native and lawyer, moved to Northern Virginia in 1993. Since then, he’s been intensely involved in his local community. As a resident of the Kings Park area of Springfield, Cook has served on the local PTA and was elected president of his neighborhood association. So it’s no surprise that his campaign (motto: “Strengthening our neighborhoods”) focused largely on good governance issues: improving constituent services, zoning enforcement, and working with homeowners’ associations. On his campaign website, he touts such achievements as organizing the “first-ever community potluck dinner” and holding a “Neighborhood College” workshop, devoted to such goo-goo, soccer-mom agenda items as “community building techniques” and “cross-cultural understanding.”
While GOP leaders at the national level may think his platform fluffy, Cook believes that Fairfax Republicans have “struggled because we haven’t always emphasized the issues that are of most concern to the majority of voters. What works up here in Fairfax County,” he continues, is focusing on issues like “helping teachers in the classroom, neighborhoods, helping people being safe and secure in their homes, and economic growth.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell is likewise focusing on what he calls “kitchen-table issues.” Among the initiatives being promoted by his campaign are an Obama-esque “green jobs” program and something called a “working mom government simplicity task force”—words unlikely to endear him to Rush Limbaugh listeners. During the lull before the 2010 congressional elections, all eyes will be on Virginia’s 2009 race to see just how successful this approach will be.
Born and raised 15 miles south of D.C. in Mt. Vernon, McDonnell likes to tout his northern Virginia roots. On an overcast Saturday morning in late March, 500 people gathered in a firehouse in Annandale to officially kick off his campaign. “Growing up in northern Virginia, I learned from [my parents] values that have lasted a lifetime,” he tells the crowd. To drive home the point, during a two-minute biographical video shown at the rally, the narrator says that McDonnell learned “his values—faith, family, hard work, honesty” in the “middle-class neighborhoods of Fairfax County and Hampton Roads.”
McDonnell’s impressive biography ought to have statewide appeal: a father of five, 21 years in the Army and Reserves, a master’s degree in business administration, executive at a Fortune 500 company, state delegate, attorney general. When he speaks, he comes across as an affable businessman—a less plastic version of Mitt Romney. With his non-regional (read: Yankee) dialect, McDonnell talks like northern Virginians—in stark contrast to former gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore, whose Appalachian twang some found indecipherable. In a crisp charcoal business suit and red tie, the salt-and-pepper-haired 54-year-old looks like northern Virginians, too. He certainly doesn’t seem like the type to be caught in George Allen’s cowboy boots.
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“Are you trying to be the next Bobby Jindal?”
It’s a question Amit Singh, the son of Indian immigrants and a young libertarian firebrand, heard a lot while working the phones for the Republican party. In truth, the Indian-American Louisiana governor provided little inspiration for Singh. His role model, rather, is Texas congressman Ron Paul.
While Fairfax county supervisor John Cook has tried to pull the party to the center, Singh exerts pressure in the opposite direction—leading an insurgency of limited-government purists who are fighting against what they see as the GOP’s turn towards reckless spending and intrusive federal legislation. Turned off by “big-government conservatism,” Singh and his comrades favor a back-to-basics conservatism that emphasizes smaller government and tax cuts.
In the spring of 2008, Singh, a 33-year-old defense consultant from Arlington, says he intended to volunteer for Republican congressional candidate Mark Ellmore, who was running from his Arlington district. But when he visited Ellmore’s website he was shocked at what he found.
“I was pretty much floored because his entire front banner was about increasing the size of Medicare and Medicaid and SCHIP. I was just shocked,” Singh tells me at the Mediterranean restaurant Moby Dick in Clarendon. “At this point, what’s the difference? Why would I support this guy?” By February, Singh decided to challenge Ellmore in the Republican primary.
More than a few people thought Singh’s campaign was a joke. (It didn’t help that his campaign proposals included shuttering the Department of Education and opening up trade with Iran and Cuba.) But Singh went on to raise over $60,000 in three months and gained endorsements from two top conservative Virginia blogs. His campaign was featured favorably in the likes of Reason and the American Conservative, both of which cheered on the next-generation Ron Paul Republican.
But the “rEVOLution”—as the Paulites call it—was not to be. Singh lost the primary with 43 percent of the vote. But he’s not giving up on his political activism anytime soon. “If you put yourself out there, you at least get that soapbox to talk on,” he says. “One dissenting opinion can cause a lot of effect.…If you can start showing a trend, we won’t be so quick to bail huge banks out, bail failing car companies out.” With any luck, he hopes, “the forces of big government will be somewhat checked by the people themselves.”
As a leading voice for the Campaign for Liberty—the grassroots organization that rose from the ashes of the Paul campaign—Singh has thrown his weight behind McDonnell. (Singh cites McDonnell’s promise to “reduce government regulations which are hindering free enterprise” as the basis of his support.) While some might scoff at the importance of the Ron Paul vote, every vote counts. Singh’s was just another vote Republicans couldn’t afford to lose last fall but did. For the moment though, McDonnell appears to be successfully keeping his center-right coalition intact.
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In the current moment of unchecked Democratic control, McDonnell may not even need to pledge to roll back the welfare state to maintain conservative support. Simply standing athwart the more unpopular parts of the liberal Democratic agenda may convince conservatives that McDonnell is the lesser of two evils. In his kickoff speech, McDonnell touched on all the usual party shibboleths: abortion, gun rights, and offshore drilling. But the conservative talking point that got the biggest rise out of the audience was his opposition to a “card-check” bill, which would allow unionization without a secret ballot election. “All three of my opponents recently stood in union picket lines in Northern Virginia, and now will not oppose the job-killing card-check bill!” he shouted, eliciting loud boos from the crowd. “We can’t let big national unions turn Virginia into southern Michigan!”
“McDonnell wants to turn card check into the issue this year,” the Washington Post‘s Anita Kumar wrote on May 27. “He talks about it everywhere he goes.” Republicans argue that a Democratic victory in 2009 would mean an end to right-to-work laws at the state level, even if a national card-check measure doesn’t pass Congress. “If you lose the House of Delegates and one of the Democrats wins the governor’s race, the right-to-work law in Virginia is gone,” says the Fairfax’s Bedell. Card check, he adds, is a “unifying issue for Republicans, and a unifying issue for businessmen and women. They’ve kind of gone away from the Republican party in Fairfax County, but they’re coming back.”
Fairfax Republicans have also made headway attacking their opponents on deficit spending and taxes. During his campaign, John Cook brought attention to the $650 million deficit in the Democrat-controlled county. Cook supported specific budget cuts—focusing particularly on the $20 million spent each year on public housing. Bedell anticipates that Democrats will soon find themselves in an unhappy bind between cutting spending or raising taxes to balance the budget. The effects of this trade-off are already beginning to materialize: The Washington Post reported that over 150,000 households will see their property taxes increase this year, some by as much as 10 percent, despite declining home values in the county.
The tax issue already appears to have claimed its first two Democratic victims on May 5, when two Alexandria city council members were defeated by Republican challenger Frank Fannon and Republican-leaning independent Alicia Hughes. “It was spending and taxes” that led to Republican victory, says Fannon, a lifelong Alexandrian and 41-year-old manager at Sun Trust mortgage. He points out that the city budget had swelled by 50 percent in the past decade, and the council all but assured his victory by raising residential real estate taxes by 6 percent the week before the election.
While Fannon’s election provides another glimmer of hope for the GOP—he will be the first Republican to sit on the council since 2003—it’s unclear whether his win foreshadows GOP prospects in statewide elections. Fannon acknowledges that had he been on the ballot last November, he would have been overwhelmed by the Obama wave in Alexandria, where he defeated McCain with 72 percent of the vote.
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Michael Barone believes that Virginia might become competitive again as voter turnout falls. “A lot of the young singles vote that rallied so well for Obama are going to be hard to get out for other elections,” he explains. “[Young voters are] transient. They’re not going to vote for a board of supervisors election.” Indeed, the turnout for the Fairfax County board of supervisors election was just 100,000—only 20 percent of the 2008 presidential election turnout.
This November will test whether Republicans can make a comeback in the Old Dominion. Obama’s national popularity remains high, and accusations that the GOP no longer has room for moderates reached fever pitch after Senator Arlen Specter’s defection to the Democrats earlier this spring. But now that costly federal programs like health care are poised to place an even greater strain on recession-stressed voters than the bailouts of last winter, a candidate who promises to be tight-fisted with their money may have a chance.
But if McDonnell can’t pull off a win, it may mean that Virginia has taken a decisive turn from red to blue, and Republicans will have to take cold comfort in the knowledge that they’re winners in “real” Virginia, if not in real life.
John McCormack is a deputy online editor at the Weekly Standard.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire